Have I lost my critical faculties? Do I just like everything now? I wondered, as I walked away from the Schoenfeld theater after seeing American Psycho on Broadway. Because the truth is that I had a great time, and found the new musical daring, dynamic, funny, and memorable. I felt a little embarrassed, because I wasn’t totally sure that it was a good show. But then as my friend Christine said: “I know a lot of people who liked American Psycho, and they’re all kind of embarrassed about it.”
So why did we like it? And why are we a little embarrassed?
Let’s start with the story. I know that everyone else has seen the movie American Psycho, or finished the book. I haven’t done either, and I found the slasher story pretty compelling. Patrick Bateman is a shallow, preppy, materialistic 1980s Wall Street type who is obsessed with Donald J. Trump. (It’s hard to believe the Trump thing is actually from the original source material, but it certainly is.) He’s a wealthy consumer — he loves telling us about his high-end lotions, clothing, electronics and so on — with an equally consumerist fiance (Helene Yorke) and materialistic group of friends. And he just happens to be a serial killer.
It’s a razor-sharp satire — or, well, to be more exact, American Psycho WAS a razor-sharp satire. I’m still in the middle of reading Bret Easton Ellis’s original novel, and it pulls no punches. The musical, on the other hand, is half murderous satire, half 1980s nostalgia comedy. Part of this can’t be helped: that’s where the story is set, after all. But this show has a lot of fun with its 1980s backdrop. This is certainly evident in Robert Aguirre-Sacasa’s sometimes uneven book. Much of Ellis’s original prose is preserved, but now functions as a knowing wink to the past. And the nostalgia is amplified in director Rupert Goold’s production. Everything from the movement to the scenery to the costumes is totally, outrageously of its era. So maybe this adaptation distances us from some of the more horrifying aspects of the story, or the more biting satirical commentary. Oh well. Who cares? American Psycho the musical (like its characters) may be a little relentless in its search for a good time. But it kind of feels like something that Patrick Bateman himself would love.
The music and lyrics are by Duncan Sheik, of Spring Awakening fame. His songs sound vaguely 1980s: high energy, pulsing rhythms, electronic instrumentation, a little cheesy. The music is good; the lyrics are not. (“You’re such a card,” the guys sing to their business cards.) There are also a few genuine 1980s songs, as well: Hip to Be Square, Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Don’t You Want Me, In the Air Tonight. Given that I always want original music in a musical, I felt a little guilty for preferring the real 1980s music (by Phil Collins et al) to Mr. Sheik’s score. On the other hand, most people in my generation would probably feel the same way. It’s in our bloodstream by this point.
As for the cast: I’ve already gone too long without mentioning Benjamin Walker. In other words: I’m starting to understand the hoopla. From his first moment he was mesmerizing, charismatic, creepy. He’s hilarious too. The role is enormous — he’s onstage nearly the entire show — and he absolutely commands the space. It’s a highly physical part, too. I honestly don’t understand why Mr. Walker wasn’t nominated for a Tony. (But more on that in a different post.) It was that kind of compelling performance, as far as I was concerned. (On the other hand, I’m a little worried that people will think I only liked him because he is quite handsome, very toned, and spent half the show in his underpants. Not true! Not true at all!)
Then there’s Helene Yorke, who I remember well from her brassy performance in the mediocre Bullets Over Broadway. Evelyn, Patrick’s fiance, is a similarly cartoonish character to Olive of Bullets Over Broadway, but it seems to fit Ms. Yorke better, somehow. It could be the characterization is funnier, or it could be that the tone of American Psycho fits better with her style of comedy than Bullets did. Either way, she’s great here.
I was at a bit of a loss with Jennifer Damiano’s performance. Ms. Damiano plays Patrick’s secretary Jean. She’s a sweet girl and secretly in love with Patrick. (Bad choice, Jean!) Ms. Damiano surprised me with the utter expressionlessness of her performance. Seemingly every line was delivered in a deadpan monotone. I was completely fascinated by this. I mean, this is clearly a performance decision and not just bad acting. But I couldn’t really figure out why. Maybe to set Jean off from the cartoonishness of the rest of the company? Or… or… maybe she is speaking in a completely normal voice, and it only sounds monotonous because the rest of the cast is so over the top? Or… is it actually bad acting? I’m not sure.
So maybe by this point you can see where I’m coming from. There are reasons why I’m embarrassed (the lyrics, the overt nostalgia, the sometimes clunky book) and reasons I liked American Psycho anyway (Benjamin Walker and the rest of the cast, the compelling story, the excellent comedic moments, the music). At this point it seems pretty obvious why the show got such divided reviews. And why it got mostly ignored by the Tony nominators. But I call “no fair.” This is a show that takes more risks than any other new musical on Broadway this season (except Hamilton). And I think that’s something we should root for.
My Grade: B
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Ticket price: $59 (Box office with discount)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes
Next Up: My Tony nomination reactions